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Strings go electric: Visiting musician expands students' view of music

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Professional violinist Sarah Charness rehearses with local elementary school students Wednesday in the Central High School gymnasium. Charness is a guest artist, representing Electrify Your Strings, an organization which encourages K-12 students to explore music using acoustic and electric instruments. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald2 / 7
Dalton Muscha, a Century Elementary School student, plays a Viper electric violin with guidance from visiting violinist Sarah Charness (center), of the Electrify Your Strings organization, and Pauline Eichenberger, a Central High School freshman violinist, Wednesday at Central High School. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald3 / 7
Professional violinist Sarah Charness, a visiting artist with the Electrify Your Strings organization, performs with local elementary school students in concert Wednesday at Central High School. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald4 / 7
Justin Karel, a fifth-grader at Discovery Elementary School, rehearses "Strings Will Rock You" on his double bass with other elementary school students students as part of the Electrify Your Strings program Wednesday at Central High School. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald5 / 7
Elianna Moen, 11, a student at Lewis and Clark Elementary School, plays the Cobra electric cello during a rehearsal Wednesday at Central High School in Grand Forks, as part of the Electrify Your Strings program. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald6 / 7
Professional violinist Sarah Charness, with the Electrify Your Strings organization, smiles while performing an orchestral concert with local elementary school students Wednesday at Central High School. Photo by Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald7 / 7

Move over, Beethoven, classical music took back seat this week when local students got a taste of what other sounds their string instruments could make during the three-day "Electrify Your Strings!" festival here.

Instead of the traditional compositions that exemplify orchestral music, it was all about Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Queen, the Rolling Stones and other icons of rock music.

Visiting professional violinist Sarah Charness, from New York, introduced more than 700 students to electrified violins and cellos as a way to broaden their view of music and potential range of self-expression.

"We take them from the classical genre and put them in another one," said Charness, a teacher with the Electrify Your Strings organization.

"It's giving them a chance to do something very, very new."

The festival culminates with a concert at 7 p.m. Friday at Red River High School. The performers will be middle and high school students who have been in rehearsal with Charness this week.

Thinking 'outside the box'

Charness is one of several professional EYS musicians who travel the country, teaching and demonstrating electrified string instruments.

"Teachers here are going outside the box by bringing in a program like this, they're bringing something different to their students," she said. "It helps students see their instruments in a new light."

At first, students "are a little shell-shocked" with her teaching style—she has them stand, stomp their feet, chant and lift high their bows in unison—but they soon warm up to it, Charness said.

"I love working with kids, I love sharing with kids and making this about them—helping them find their voice and the joy of playing."

She emphasizes improvisation, composition, and personal expression on their violins, violas, cellos and basses.

The electrified string instruments she shares with them were designed and created by Mark Wood, who founded the Electrify Your Strings organization 18 years ago.

"There are tons of different effects you can put (the electrified violin) through," Charness said, manipulating dials on the speaker system to change the sound from violin to guitar to cello.

"The instrument can play in genres that are not native to the instrument," she said. Also, "with its V-shape and strap, it frees you to use your body."

Charness demonstrates her musical prowess with a trademark hot pink six-string electric Viper violin, which she bought after meeting Wood at an intensive summer music camp when she was 16.

"I want (students) to know that I started at the same place they are," she said. "I started out playing instruments just like theirs."

Nora Vanlooy, a fifth-grader at Kelly Elementary School, is one of those students.

"I like making music," said Vanlooy, 10. "I like playing cello, because my mom played cello. I've been playing since fourth grade.

"When I tried instruments last year, the cello felt right. It felt better than the others."

Justin Karel, a fifth-grader at Discovery Elementary, seems to have fallen in love with the bass.

"I like the dark types," he said referring to the instruments low tones. "I just like the feeling of it. It just feels amazing.

"The bass is a very special instrument to me."

'Awesome opportunity'

A violinist since the age of 4, Charness has appeared as a soloist with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and has performed alongside artists such as Josh Groban, the Jonas Brothers, Jennifer Hudson and members of The Who.

Captivating audiences with her musical style, she's performed at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Prague Opera House and the Chicago Theater, among others.

Rehearsing with and learning from Charness "is an awesome opportunity for students to experience music," said Rebecca McFarlane, Grand Forks Public Schools orchestra teacher and festival coordinator. "It opens their imagination to just a whole new world.

"It helps them to see themselves in a new way—that there are different ways to make music and enjoy themselves," McFarlane said.

The experience also expands their thinking in subjects outside the realm of music, she said.

More than notes

In rehearsal Wednesday, elementary music students performed an orchestral version of Queen's "We Will Rock You" and other contemporary pop music.

Charness urged them to stand and move—all while playing music.

"Music is about more than just the notes on the page," Charness told them. "Music is about the soul, motion and sharing."

Their body language and instruments are tools to connect with the audience, she said.

"Look up and engage with the audience. Smile. Make eye contact. They want to feel that you're sharing a piece of your soul with them," she said. "If you're looking at your stands, there's a disconnect.

"The greatest gift of music is giving the gift to others."

The Electrify Your Strings festival is supported by a grant from the Grand Forks Foundation for Education, McFarlane said.

The event is held annually, but this is the second time a music teacher from the Electrify Your Strings organization has presented the program. It first visited in 2015.

Learning from Charness "ignites students' imagination about who they are and what they can become," McFarlane said. "And, using the high-tech instruments allows our orchestras to be at the forefront of technology in the orchestra classroom."

The experience "brings out a side of our students that we don't usually see," she said. "Every single student becomes a rock star, and it catapults their confidence. You can see it, and you can feel it."

If you go:

What: 'Electrify Your Strings' All City Orchestra Festival

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Performance Hall, Red River High School

Tickets: Adults $10, students and seniors $6. Reserved seating. Go to www.spacompany.org or call (701) 746-2411. Proceeds will benefit Grand Forks Public Schools' music program.

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